‘Smash and grab’ is one of many tireless football cliches, but there’s no other way to kindly describe Manchester United’s win over Wolves to kick off their 2023-24 Premier League campaign because they were incredibly fortunate.
Fans would’ve expected more from the curtain raiser on Erik ten Hag’s second season in the hot seat, at home against a Wolves outfit that everyone had resigned to relegation before a ball had even been kicked.
Not every United fan, though, because plenty of them are well aware of just how good United are at falling flat on their face.
The Red Devils have become experts in underwhelming in more recent times, tripping over their own feet and falling into traps set only by themselves and nobody else.
Wolves at home on matchday one shouldn’t have been a banana skin, but alas, it absolutely would’ve been if not for a turbocharged Raphael Varane header that could’ve gone into orbit.
Oh, there was another incident, too. Just a small one. United’s new number one being a nutter and causing a VAR headache at the death, or something like that. You probably haven’t heard much about it.
Andre Onana made his official Manchester United debut and endeared himself to fans in style, all without spiking the blood pressure of each stand all too much for the most part.
In fact, fans were pleasantly surprised that they were watching a United goalkeeper claim crosses and spray the ball around like a regista, after years of the exact opposite. Sorry, David de Gea.
In what was a dismal display for United which proved there is still plenty of work to do, Onana was one of few positives.
But things could’ve been very, very different if Simon Hooper was a WWE fan and realised that the Cameroonian had unleashed a clothesline from hell that JBL would’ve been proud of deep into injury time, clattering both Sasa Kalajdzic and Michael Dawson.
Old Trafford was stunned and fell mostly deaf in anticipation of what felt like an inevitable VAR review, with the Wolves’ away end seething after what they’d just witnessed in front of them.
They were even more seething, though, when their penalty appeal was dismissed by VAR Michael Salisbury, much to the surprise and relief of United fans, who left the stadium surprised at how their side had just taken all three points.
Naturally, because this is United we’re talking about, the outrage has been virtually non-stop since the moment Onana’s flailing arm made contact with those orange shirts.
But we’re here today to actually come to the defence of Ten Hag’s new stopper – sort of. Don’t blame Onana, blame the rulebook and the age-old goalkeeping grey area that exists.
Either Wolves fans are rather fickle, or they have short-term memory issues if Onana’s wild challenge doesn’t remind them of the Roman Reigns-inspired Superman punch that Jose Sa landed on Leeds United’s Rasmus Kristensen in their 2022-23 season opener.
— Jo 🐾 (@El_Loco_Jo) August 6, 2022
The Portuguese stopper was equally rash in his approach, was never getting anywhere near the ball much like Onana, and ended up committing what looked like an obvious foul – yet no penalty was given and Wolves’ blushes were spared.
That wasn’t the fault of Wolves and Sa, much like it isn’t the fault of United or Onana this time around.
Per Dale Johnson’s explanation of how the rules and laws of the game are interpreted, contact from goalkeepers when they challenge for the ball often goes unpunished, unless they are deemed to have used excess force – but what constitutes that? Who decides what categorically is and is not excessive?
It’s not a new problem. Ever since VAR was introduced, the issue it has highlighted is that every referee interprets the rule book differently, despite the idea that laws are in black and white.
They simply aren’t, and that makes it difficult for the VAR of any game to make a black-and-white decision themselves. This benefits goalkeepers more than anyone else.
The ruling around goalkeepers and excessive force is vague, thus there is plenty of wriggle room for them to ‘get away with’ challenges like Onana’s or previously Sa’s, particularly if the VAR is tasked with having to challenge an on-field decision.
Wolves fans will remember when Jose Sa didn't concede a penalty for this challenge against Leeds almost a year to the day.
— Dale Johnson (@DaleJohnsonESPN) August 14, 2023
If Simon Hooper had blown his whistle and pointed to the spot on the night, not only would thousands of United fans have sunk their head into the hands and begun making an early dart to beat the traffic, but Michael Salisbury on VAR would’ve almost certainly backed the referee and not overturned the decision.
But unfortunately for Wolves – much like Leeds were unfortunate against them last season – the referee on the pitch decided the contact wasn’t excessive enough to point to the spot, and thus the VAR failed to overturn the decision, because of that grey area which ultimately gives goalkeepers extra wriggle room to push the envelope.
It’s nothing new, it just remains infuriating every time your team is on the receiving end of a controversial decision. Don’t be mad at United. Don’t be mad at Wolves.
VAR is a vessel whose existence continues to baffle and split opinion simultaneously, and its ambiguity ultimately bites every team on the backside at some point in the season.
What goes around comes around.
By Mitch Wilks